Watching the Charter School Movement Play Out

Feb 26, 2013

Credit Bloomsbury Press

Journalist Sarah Carr spent a year chronicling the lives of a skeptical teenager, a fresh-faced teacher, and a veteran principal in three separate charter schools in New Orleans for her new book, “Hope Against Hope.”

Some of the same players who orchestrated the makeover of public education in the Crescent City after Hurricane Katrina are trying to do the same thing in Baton Rouge, without the prompting of a natural disaster.

Supporters of the movement hold up charter schools as the salvation of American education. Critics say the overhaul will lead to its ruination. What Carr found was a lot of gray.

JEFFRIES: You write in the book that ultimately the struggle over the charter school revolution comes down to two competing visions for how to combat racial inequality. Do you have a sense of who is winning?

CARR: I was sort of roughly talking about this tension over whether or not social change and uplift needs to be self-determined and led by a given community.

And I think there’s no question that the current school reform in New Orleans has been largely – not entirely, but largely – imposed from the outside. But I think that it’s complicated, because I don’t necessarily know that charter schools’ and school reforms’ greatest critics are necessarily speaking for low-income black families either.

What I would like to see, both in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, is a much more sustained and aggressive effort to reach the families and the kids who are in the schools to see what they want. And I think that if they did that both extremes might be surprised by what they hear. And I think that’s actually the main voice that’s lacking right now.

JEFFRIES: In the time that you spent in the schools in New Orleans, how did that missing piece affect what was going on?

CARR: You know, a lot of these schools have very very distinct and routinized school cultures that are very very focused on college preparation and very very structured around rules. And I think if school officials and school staff don’t take the time to explain to families and kids why they’re doing that, it’s not destined to succeed in the long run.  

JEFFRIES: I think you sort of see that with Geraldlynn’s story in the book where see is going back and forth with really feeling very much oppressed by these rules in the school that she’s in, and just absolutely hating it, rebelling against it, skipping class and sort of getting off track, and being ambivalent about whether college was for her or why.

CARR: Yeah.

And I talked to a lot of kids in schools like Sci Academy and KIPP Renaissance for this book and the thing they kept saying is, if teachers took the time and said, this is why I’m asking you to do “X”, this is why I’m asking you to walk in a straight line, that that mattered to them. It was when they felt that there were these arbitrary rules that were being imposed that they rebelled against them and were much more likely to get into trouble.

Geraldlynn was an interesting case because she would go back and forth between being really bought into school and being turned off by it. And I think she vacillated in the way that a lot of kids do. And there are some who end up being caught and captured and others who end up being really repelled by it and dropping out. And I think it’s a pretty thin line for a lot of kids.

JEFFRIES: Is there something there too about if you have a teacher, like the teacher that you profile in this book, who is coming from Harvard, who is a white guy from the North, who has a very different background that might have presumed literally from his birth these rules and these destinations in terms of college and beyond that they don’t think that they have to explain it?

CARR: Yeah, I think it is.

A lot of the teachers grew up sort of dreaming of going to Harvard or Princeton or Yale, and a lot of the families that I talked to are really scared by that. They want their kids to go on and be successful and possibly go to college, but they’re scared of the idea of them leaving New Orleans. So I guess that’s what I mean by that there needs to be more of a dialogue on the grassroots level between school staff and families so that they can be sharing kind of what their aspirations and goals are so that they’re exploring the ways in which they might be similar and the ways in which they might conflict, so that you don’t see the kind of culture clashes that I saw in some of the schools that I profiled like KIPP Renaissance.

JEFFRIES: I picked up this book, you know, there’s been so much talk – the governor is going around the country literally right now talking about the school reforms in New Orleans and how successful it is and touting it as the solution to all that ails American education – and so I was half expecting when I picked up “Hope Against Hope” to find out whether that was true…

CARR: Yeah, you know, I mean, constantly when I was writing it, the question I kept hearing people ask was, is it working? Is it working? And that question was frustrating to me, because there’s just not a yes or no answer and really what I wanted to show was the way it was playing out in people’s lives for good and for bad.

JEFFRIES: Seven years after Katrina, seven years after this all began, it’s still really in its infancy.

CARR: Yeah, and I don’t think there’s any way around that.

A lot of these schools are just graduating their first classes of students, if that. So it’s going to be a few years before we see whether or not they’re graduating from college at higher rates and are able to find family-supporting incomes in New Orleans.

I think throughout American education there’s too much of a tendency to come to these snap judgements and I hope that people are patient in seeing how this plays out.